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Laguna Beach

Local politics should focus on local issues

When I was serving as a Navy JAG treaty negotiator in the White House, Kirk O’Donnell was chief counsel to Tip O’Neill, one of the most masterful politicians to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Getting treaties ratified was rough and tumble politics, but I later got to know Kirk as a tough big-hearted Boston Irish political fixer who became a colleague and friend.

We collaborated working both sides of the aisle together for years on Puerto Rico political status issues, but discovered as much as we loved constitutional law and politics we were dads first. No father ever loved a child more than Kirk did his severely challenged special needs son. Kirk often told me about his cherished day-long outings to dig clams along blustery shorelines of Massachusetts.

When Kirk died of a heart attack after jogging in his old Irish neighborhood, his son overcame disability and gave a eulogy none of us will ever forget. Kirk would have been sobbing even louder than his family and friends if he had seen it, and of course we all believed he did.

Trading stories over drinks I recalled stopping a drug dealer beating up a prostitute in Columbus, Ohio on a hot summer night in 1985. Like Chevy Chase in Vacation, I took a wrong turn looking for hotel, in a big family station wagon full of sleeping kids, and ended up in wrong place at wrong time.

After sleeping through a 100-year thunderstorm and loud Beatles music to keep me awake until we got to Columbus, suddenly all my sleepy kids were waking up to an altercation I did not want them to see. Looking out at the mean streets of an urban war zone all around us, the kids took turns asking, “Daddy. are we...there yet?” “Daddy...where’s our hotel?” “Daddy why is that lady and man fighting?”

My first impulse was to flee, but something made stop, put my window half way down and yell, “Called cops on my car phone, gonna blind you for an hour if you hit her again.” I had no car phone, and was pretending the disposable cigarette lighter in my trembling hand was a pepper spray dispenser. He must’ve left his handgun at home, he just fired a few unrepeatable vituperative epithets at me then her, and stumbled down the street.

At that point Kirk was laughing so hard he had tears on those big Irish cheeks, looked over the top of his glasses and said, “Howard, you were a civil rights lawyer in Appalachia, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Micronesia, and you saved a down and almost out lady at midnight on the bad side of town…How could such a good guy be a damn Republican?”

I remember telling him, “Democrats get it right and get it wrong about as often as Republicans, usually just at different times, which is why the two-party system has made American federalism a success story.” It was a special moment for me when a man whose political acumen far exceeded my own replied, “Howard, this is one of the best political aphorisms I ever heard.”

That meant a lot coming from Kirk, who coined some of Tip O’Neill’s most famous gems of political wisdom. O’Neil gave Kirk credit for the one-line zinger that stopped Reagan in his tracks when Democrats thought he was going too far too fast on entitlement reform, declaring Social Security the “third rail of American politics, touch and you’re dead.”

But the white-haired legislative sage O’Neill was best known for the folksy maxim “All politics is local.” And that’s what this letter is about.

You can just feel it coming like an early change of season. It’s in the very air we breathe. Local political gadflies are all abuzz about the possibility of a Trump and Biden race. Or, are there real prospects for new political stars to rise?

I published a legal article about Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard being a fully qualified candidate even though she was born in Samoa. Readers from all over started writing me about her and other candidates, immigration, impeachment, FBI spying, trade wars, diplomacy for peace and strategic readiness if diplomacy fails.

If we let them, right here in Laguna Beach small town purveyors of boringly predictable national political drivel will suck up all the public affairs oxygen debating statewide, nationwide, and worldwide political party platform narratives. 2020 will be worse than ever before in our lifetimes.

So a special intentionality is called for to focus on preserving the integrity of local nonpartisan elections in which nonpartisan candidates take stands on nonpartisan issues. It is fine for nonpartisan candidates to have national political party affiliations, but I have seen up close and personal how party-driven national identity politics can obscure rather than clarify choices in local elections. 

2020 will be a year when I will think about what Kirk would say, and try to remember O’Neill’s words “All politics is local.” In addition to being true in every political arena, those rods remind us that no matter what happens nationally, we can get it right locally.

If we do, neighbors who disagree on national issues will be able to stay civil and work together on local issues, when we can find common ground for the good of our town. 

Howard Hills

Laguna Beach

Public Input at the July 13 City Council meeting

I know a bully when I see and hear one in action. Peter Blake is a bully, plain and simple, in my opinion. From his bullying pulpit, Peter Blake called members in the audience “liars,” “Temple Hills liars” and “unprofessional” when they disagreed with his version of some of the agenda items at the July 13th Council meeting.

This is unacceptable. 

The City erred by putting the issue of massive development projects at the end of the agenda. Because of the late hour (after 12:30 a.m.), the public was allowed only one minute to speak on this vital issue. 

The scene at 1 a.m. at the Council was disgraceful, and I was embarrassed by the City Council itself. Allowing name calling by a City Council member should never be an acceptable part of the public hearing process. Speakers who disagreed with Councilman Blake were loudly referred to as “unprofessional” by him. As a resident, I can take just so much disrespect. I disgustedly left the City Council meeting at 1 a.m. 

Here are some solutions to improving the conduct at City Council meetings:

1. Have the Mayor, as leader of the meeting, say to Councilman Blake during his name calling outbursts, “Stop. That is not appropriate.”

2. Ask that the Mayor contact the police chief for a sergeant at arms to attend the meetings if he cannot get Councilman Blake to be respectful. A sergeant at arms keeps order during a meeting, and if other board members or meeting attendees are disruptive, a sergeant may warn them and, in extreme cases, eject them from the meeting. 

3. Schedule contentious issues early on the agenda. On issues of major interest, 12:30 a.m. is never a good time to begin a public hearing. Don’t limit speaking on a major issue to one minute, ever. Allow three minutes for public comments because of the importance of the issues to residents. There should be more not less time.

4. Prioritize issues, such as massive development projects or increasing the density in Laguna Canyon, that will be contentious. Limit the total time on a topic and schedule another time for a continued discussion when needed.

5. Advise Councilman Blake to resign if he can’t control his outbursts. The City Council is not an appropriate venue for bullying tactics.

Bullying at City Council meetings is not acceptable. 

Karen Dennis

Laguna Beach


Amber Alan

February 21, 2004 – June 24, 2019 

Amber Alan closeup

Click on photo for a larger image

Submitted photo

It is with a heavy heart that I announce the end of my employment with Amber Alan. She lived the fullest of her last nine years and 20 days in and around Laguna. Every day, rain or shine, she could be found, rocking a pink mani, weekends a dress or skirt, strutting her stuff up and down Forest Avenue and the boardwalk. 

She was a wonderful travel partner as she traveled to many ARTCAR events around the country. Her last adventure would be to Seattle this past June.

Rest in peace, dear grrrrl.

Scott & Amber

Council should postpone tonight’s MOU on six development projects

I understand that the City Manager released a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for consideration as item 19 by the City Council at its July 9th meeting. The MOU identifies very large developments within Laguna while creating a fast track process for the various city agencies to review and manage the six specific projects listed in the MOU.

I have quickly reviewed the proposal and note that it is very broad in scope and provides a number of significant directives that appear to be problematic for the community. These are the most significant identified so far:

--The specific benefits that are the goals of the MOU have not been previously discussed and should be agreed upon by residents

--There appears to be a lack of consideration of the impacts of developer proposals

--Assumptions appear to have been made about the characteristics of proposed projects that have not been vetted in public

--A two-person council subcommittee is not an appropriate way to handle major decisions such as those outlined in the MOU, in my opinion. Public meetings, workshops, task force deliberations – all in public – are the best methods, in my opinion, and clearly comply with the Brown Act.

The Council should postpone consideration of this agenda item until September and after the tourist season. It was released to the public only last week. Given the importance that these projects present to the city and its residents, the City Council should provide residents sufficient time to study this MOU, analyzing its implications for the city.

Finally, the Council should hold a special session to allow for considered input from the public on this MOU rather than placing such an important item at the end of a council agenda.

Acceding to these two suggestions may help reassure residents that their voices have not been overlooked in the interest of what appear, at first blush, to be an overly developer-friendly initiative. This is especially critical as the six projects include: Cleo Hotel, Hotel Laguna renovation, Central Bluffs mixed use development, The Hive, Canyon Acres Housing, and the Museum Hotel near Cliff Drive. All proposed by the same developer!

Armando Baez

Laguna Beach

What else…trees

One after another report was made on the Grand Jury Report about Urban Trees in Orange County, especially on Laguna Beach – Ms. Christoph and friends were quoted of course. I read the actual report but couldn’t find who the authors were nor who participated in creating this report or provided information from Laguna Beach.

Local reports that I have read do not include that only 12 cities actually participated in one way or another – Laguna being one and the only coastal city. The only city with dramatic coastal views as we well know – but that does not seem to matter to some folks. We were the only city that had such a devastating fire (1993) – 400 plus homes destroyed, many more damaged, wildlife killed – who knows how many – but many eucalyptus trees in the middle of the firestorm. Many, many of our streets do not have sidewalks, cars often park right up to property lines – where would Ms. Christoph like to plant the public trees? Importantly, scientific facts show that these trees are not the safest trees to plant, firewood is the most productive by-product. Newport Beach, Corona del Mar, Huntington Beach, and San Clemente do not have issues with eucalyptus trees nor are they hemmed in as tightly as we are by the hillsides and have many ways for people to evacuate.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich recently released a report that stated at least 1 trillion trees need to be planted to stave the effects of carbon emissions to give us 20 years to solve our climate change issues. However, spokesperson Jean-Francois Bastin and ecologist there said no one has worked out the details on what kinds of trees to plant and where to put them. They are trying to do this. When asked by German television what trees are the best, he said that eucalyptus and pine were the worst. Duh, we know that don’t we in Laguna by our ongoing issues of falling debris/trees, dead and dying trees? I also read recently that the extended drought in Australia and its proliferation of its trees could cause a widespread fire, flaming concerns. Recent rains have not solved the issue. Sound familiar?

Our city is working on a well thought out plan to make our city safer by removing trees deemed potentially dangerous and replacing with trees that make sense and are safer and hiring a full-time staff arborist and simplifying the process. In the long run this will save us money, protect private property/public property, and ensure the right to a view. From all indications I think Ms. Christoph wants to run again for city council. May I suggest that she take a look around and appreciate all that Laguna offers and how lucky we are to still have our city. That fire of ‘93 could have been a lot worse. 

In the meantime, what can we do to preserve rain forests worldwide – much is being cut down to grow coconut palm and for grazing cows. No real effort is being made to save the biodiversity of the world. Shame on us. 

Ganka Brown
Laguna Beach

Response to School Board

I am outraged by the behavior of the School Board and Superintendent. To put the taxpayers/residents/children of Laguna Beach in a situation where we are once again funding a defense of seemingly unethical behaviors by Superintendent Viloria and the Board is reckless. It also seems to me that the lawyer advising them, Bresee, did some possibly questionable (illegal?) things and should immediately recuse himself from representing them. What bothers me the most is the seemingly backdoor relationship between the Superintendent and Board Member Normandin. Does he tell her everything? Does she advise him how to respond to all emails? The public records information has really exposed their seemingly backdoor relationship, which calls out this nonsense. This whole situation smells of cronyism, vindictiveness, and secrecy (that has been exposed). Is this who we want guiding our children’s education? Time for a change. These people must go.

India Hynes

Laguna Beach

Supporting Mrs. Dee Perry

My daughter Makayla was a student at El Morro in Mrs. Perry’s 3rd grade class and my daughter adored her and so did I. We just saw her at high school graduation and she gave my daughter the biggest hug and it was so special to have Mrs. Perry there. Mrs. Perry also sent my daughter a special graduation card to say how proud she was of her accomplishment considering the health problems my daughter had suffered with during her school years and it brought tears to my daughter’s eyes to see how much Mrs. Perry cared about her after all these years. She was an incredible teacher to Makayla and I witnessed first hand as a volunteer in her classroom how much she loved her students and they loved her. The children are lucky to have her representing them in our school district and so we support her 100 percent and always will.

We love and thank you Mrs. Perry!

Trace Klug

The Klug Family
Laguna Beach

Regarding Superintendent Viloria’s pay raise and other School Board-related issues

I struggle to understand the reasoning behind the 8 percent salary increase to Superintendent Viloria’s contract, amended at the June 25 meeting prior to performance review. It’s double the negotiated increase of LBUFA, CSEA, and two top District Administrators and by 2021-22 a $60k salary increase since his 2016 hire. Does another degree even justify that? Why? Cost of living estimates project within 3-4 percent and interest rates remain steady. Our City Manager will have a projected base salary that is less than our School Superintendent, with tenure, experience, performance, and cost of living factored into consideration while managing a larger budget. 

The School Board’s reasoning behind such a generous and in my opinion disproportionate salary bump to Viloria seems irrelevant and/or subjective, including Normandin’s statement that his “salary ranks below 150 Superintendents in the state.” LBUSD’s four schools at 2,855 students is small comparably. District projected enrollments are on decline through 2021-22. Board member Wolff stated she is “grateful for his leadership” and “better communications.” Interesting. LBUSD is Viloria’s first Superintendent position, after three years of administrative leadership as an associate and two as an executive director. He has the district engaged in multiple lawsuits, and multiple controversial programs implemented.

Public records requests shows an email February 15 to Viloria from Wolff questioning frequency of board meeting attendance by school principals. (Who are awesome!) Viloria replies with, “No issue, given their salary reflects higher than the County average yet the Executive Team, Assistant Sups and myself are underpaid by county standards.” Really? It is my understanding that the newest Math Pathways is teacher-driven, not admin-driven. Board callouts are all but extinct, the livestreaming of board meetings has been “suspended”, suggestions have been made to seemingly minimize principal attendance, and a “special Board Committee” has been established excluding Board Member Perry – and Wolff appreciates improved communication? There is less transparency than ever, it seems! 

A “yes” board is in place and an astute, quick climbing Superintendent is in charge, it seems. Recent District data shows our students thriving in AP classes and Social/Emotional programs providing good results prior to any calendar change. High school students registered for fall without knowledge of the later presented new bell schedule. A dramatic change without explanation, less academic options for athletes or an earlier start. Families with students in all schools have late start Monday/Friday, early release on Wednesday. These aren’t community or family-friendly changes. 

Vickers stated, “change in organization incurs upset” and it’s “incumbent as ‘employers’ to make sure we give support and recognition.” Change is good especially where needed, but many of these changes aren’t needed, in my opinion, aren’t community friendly or transparent. Good leadership pay is based on performance. Not optics and manipulation. 

Sheri Morgan

Laguna Beach

About the two Democratic presidential debates

Democratic primary voters have to ask themselves whether they learned anything new during the back-to-back presidential debates last Wednesday and Thursday. If so, are they still happy with their favorite candidate or, if not, will they switch to someone else?

Presidential politics is not for the faint of heart. Some days are better than others just as some debate performances are better than others. Pundits will spend the next week or two analyzing which Democrats won or lost in Miami.

As far as I am concerned, the primary voters won. That’s because we got to watch virtually all the Democratic presidential candidates in real time. I agree with what the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said: “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.”

Denny Freidenrich
Laguna Beach

School Board flunks civics again?

As I’ve asked previously, when our town has supported success of our schools going on nine decades, does current School Board member Jim Kelly really still think we need him to tell us how good our teachers, parents, and students are doing? Does he really think taxpayers who support schools and sustain annual investment of over $60 million in our kids’ futures need him to assure us we have a good school district?

As I have observed often, spending twice per student compared to nearby schools, for a small but highly evolved four-campus local school system, with stable enrollment and incredible community support, we expect and are immensely proud of our very good schools.

It is fine for former educators to serve on school boards, but the role and function of a school board is to govern. Just my opinion, but it strikes me as cheap trick politics for School Board members here or anywhere to ignore and deny deficiencies in governance, by hiding behind and/or taking credit for what our professional teachers, committed parents, and well-raised motivated students are accomplishing in the classroom, as I believe Kelly is doing. 

Hijacking of legitimate academic achievement by others to cover up School Board underachievement, as I see it, happens in other school districts too. But in the opinions of an increasing number of our fellow citizens, politicization of academics to explain away chronic School Board and Superintendent co-dependence on what often seems to be bad advice from overpaid consultants has become detrimental to students and families over the past decade.

Many in our community have awakened to the belief that our state education code recognizes that a separation and balance is required, one in which administrators support governance by elected Boards that do not over delegate governance powers to unelected administrators. That balance is easily lost if career school administrators and elected community representatives rely excessively on costly consultants doing jobs senior staff is already paid to do, along with litigious attorney contractors, all contributing to over-commercialization of the public education industrial complex.

No wonder most if not all current 2020 presidential candidates of both national parties cite the need for re-allocation of federal and local funding from top-heavy administrative bureaucracy to classroom teachers and resources as an imperative piece of the puzzle to end hyper-inflation in the cost of education.

Educators often aspire to governance but many are not as good at it as we might expect. School Board members with marginal actual educational experience may aspire to be educational leaders on the School Board, but more often turn out to be profoundly disappointing underachievers on both governance and education issues, too often allowing themselves to be spoon-fed policy and budgets by the very bureaucrats over which elected representatives are supposed to have oversight and control.

Yet, time and time again Board member Kelly seems to respond to critics by wrapping himself and the district in glossy reports, including in his June 28 letter to Stu News, touting the LBUSD 2018-19 Annual Report to the Community.

Just my opinion but it strikes me as presumptuous for Kelly to limit his role and contribution to School Board governance to seemingly serve as an uncritical abject apologist for the School Board. In my opinion, if Kelly wants to earn credibility he needs to begin by explaining the reasons for his absence from the current Board’s installation and organization meeting after he was elected, at which Dee Perry was denied rotation as Board President, despite a Board Bylaw other members previously relied on for rotation in sequence.

It might also be helpful to the public if he would explain his chronic absenteeism from Board meetings, at a rate that might well land an LBHS student in detention. How can we expect students to follow rules and meet high performance standards when School Board members seemingly do not?

At the June 25 meeting of the Board, at least Peggy Wolff tried to explain her vote to form a subcommittee that excludes Board Member Dee Perry, although the so-called private email in dispute is yet to be proven confidential. Wolff’s self-justification failed, in my opinion, for reasons that include the fact Perry forwarded the email in question on her official email not a private email account.

In addition, the state public records law also contemplates city and school district employee use of private emails, which supersedes any local rule prohibiting that practice. But at least Wolff addressed the issues raised by her vote to give herself and the Board majority the power and discretion for what is in effect “partial impeachment” of a fellow Board member.

Despite what I believe was brazen disregard for fact and law, at least Wolff had the resolve to answer her critics. In my opinion it truly is cheap trick politics for Kelly to passive aggressively not participate regularly, meaningfully, and substantively in Board debate, vote in lockstep with the Board majority, and limit his role to what I see as public relations gimmicks to assure the community we should all be happy campers because we have good schools.

In my opinion that is the local governance equivalent of state politicians who want us to ignore the scourge of homelessness in LA and San Francisco because commercial real estate is booming in those big cities. It’s like national politicians who tell us all is well with America because the stock market is breaking records, so we should not worry our little heads about climate change, immigration or pollution of our oceans.

Accordingly, I would hope instead of embracing Kelly’s “don’t worry be happy” message the public will do some critical thinking like we ask of students, and consider not just the success of teachers, parents, and students that always has and always will happen with or without a more high-performing School Board.

In addition to all that we value and sustain, we need to also consider what seems to be the chronic denial of due process, abuse of secrecy powers, and weaponization of local Board rules to impose “unity” and regimentation to “speak with one voice,” which in my opinion is occurring at the expense of diversity, pluralism, transparency, and dissent by minority voices.

That is why I want to express my solidarity standing on common ground with the 15 citizens who signed the statement “Transparency is needed!” published by Stu News on June 28, opposing the action taken against Perry and calling for fairness, justice, and openness in local school governance.

Howard Hills
Laguna Beach

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